Beijing seeks to calm Hong Kong’s stormy political waters through a fog of politics

The spotlight of Hong Kong politics shifts to Beijing as elites in the pro-establishment camp attended the annual lianghui (兩會). Politicos cut through the fog of political-speak of Chinese leaders for a clue of the thinking of Zhongnanhai leaders.


 

This time every year, the spotlight of Hong Kong politics shifts to Beijing as a group of elites in the pro-establishment camp attended the annual lianghui, or ‘two meetings’, referring to the annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Political pundits try to cut through the fog of political-speak of Chinese leaders, hoping to get a clue of the latest thinking of Zhongnanhai leaders on Hong Kong.

 

Watching China

This year, they are monitoring the meetings even more vigorously because of the Mong Kok clashes and the Legislative Council by-election held on February 28. Specifically, they are keen to know Beijing’s assessments on the unrest and results of the New Territories East by-election and how they may affect their strategy on Hong Kong. But like the weather in spring, political fog has prevailed. There is no clear, key message from Chinese leaders for Hong Kong, judging from the remarks made on various occasions.

Beijing leaders have apparently decided to choose their words carefully to avoid stirring up fresh controversy. This is also because Beijing is still making a full analysis on the causes and impacts of the Mong Kok disturbances and the implications of the Legco by-election.

In his government work report, Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) has reiterated the principle of “one country, two systems” in the section on Hong Kong and Macau, without mentioning such sensitive issues as the  pro-independence trend. He has called for “full and accurate” implementation of the “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong. The use of the words “full and accurate” has given rise to speculation about its implications. The truth is that it is in line with Beijing’s view that has been made public in the past few years that Hong Kong people have not yet been able to understand the Basic Law fully and accurately.

Chinese officials have maintained Hong Kong people have over-emphasised the importance of  their interests being safeguarded under the principle of “two systems”, while ignoring their obligations under the principle of “one country.” The imbalance in thinking about the broad principle in mainland-Hong Kong is the underlying reason for the rise of pro-independence thinking and localism.

Given the nature of the government work report, it is not surprising Li has not gone into detail on Hong Kong. It came as a surprise, however, that the messages given by Zhang Dejiang (張德江), another Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member, have been subdued. This is not his style.

 

Lion becomes a lamb

Known for his sharp and tough talk on Hong Kong on some previous occasions, Zhang was relatively mild in his talk with local NPC deputies. The official media has published a brief report on the meeting, but gave no details. That can be interpreted as a sign that the central leadership has no important messages they want to convey to the people of Hong Kong through the meeting.

NPC deputies quoted Zhang as saying Hong Kong’s international image has suffered because of the Mong Kok riot instigated by a small number of radical separatists. He reminded Hong Kong people not to “politicise” everything, adding “pan-politicisation and street politics” would do no good for Hong Kong. Hong Kong has succeeded in gaining the present status because of its rule of law, economy, free port and the proximity to the mainland, not because of street politics.

Maria Tam Wai-chu (譚惠珠) quoted Zhang as saying conflicts in Hong Kong have grown sharper. Aside from historical reasons, Zhang also noted that some other countries also faced problems including unemployment, economic slow-down and difficulties of young people in buying their own flats. Hong Kong, he reportedly said, needs to find solutions to their problems.

Intriguingly, Zhang’s comments on Hong Kong contrasted markedly with some remarks he made at a separate meeting with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英). Leung said after the meeting Zhang was “shocked” and “feel distressed” about the Mong Kok riot. The NPC chairman said the “rioters” have caused damage to the city’s rule of law and international image. The official media did not report on their meeting.

It is unclear why Zhang has reportedly used some harsh words when he commented on the Mong Kok unrest. But taken his remarks as a whole, Zhang has exercised caution and restraint in his latest talk on Hong Kong.

In the wake of the Mong Kok clashes and the rise of radical localism as seen in the Legco by-election, it is unthinkable that Beijing feels satisfied with the state of the Hong Kong SAR. Wang Guangya, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, has admitted there are multiple causes in the Mong Kok unrest. Hardliners may feel adamant a small number of pro-independence activists, with hostile foreign forces behind them, masterminded the riot. Wang’s remarks sound like a tacit admission of factors such as Leung’s governance.

A local deputy of the CPPCC, Chan Yuen-han (陳婉孄), was more explicit. She pointed the finger at Leung’s style of governance during an interview in Beijing. The way the government governed, she said, was partly to blame for the polarisation of society. “Those (alleged rioters) who support independence, separatism is in the minority. Most people just don’t trust the government.” Chan was a strong supporter of Leung when he ran for the top post in 2012.

In another sign of the prevalence of the moderate line on Hong Kong during the plenum, State Councillor Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪), who takes care of foreign relations and Hong Kong affairs, spoke positively on the role of Hong Kong under “one country, two systems.”

 

Softly, softly

By keeping controversial political issues on the sidelines and putting economic development and the role of Hong Kong at a broader level of the country’s development as the main theme, the top leadership seems to be keen to moderate the city’s political atmosphere and mainland-Hong Kong relations, at least in the lead-up to the September 4 Legislative Council election.

Calming the political seas will benefit pro-establishment political parties in the upcoming election so as not to be victimised by voters angry with Beijing’s hardened stance on Hong Kong.

Perhaps more important, the unfolding of events – from Occupy Central to the Mong Kok unrest and the emergence of localism and growth of violence in rallies – has laid bare a sea of discontent, particularly among young people. It is unthinkable that has not prompted a rethink of Beijing leaders on their Hong Kong policy and approach.

From many perspectives, change is a must to stop political confrontation from undermining the city’s economic development and core systems and values. The lull in Beijing may be prelude to change – or a lull before the storm. Be prepared for whatever the political weather holds.

Chris Yeung

Chris Yeung

Chris Yeung is a respected senior veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong.His storied career includes having served as the Editor-at-Large at the South China Morning Post and more recently as the Deputy Chief Editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

He writes on Greater China issues.

Chris Yeung

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